Quick pro tip: Do not question the presence of hand grenades and fishbowls in the absence of both war and fish on Bourbon St. Well, the absence of war might be an overstatement, and surely the Mississippi is being exhumed of crawfish at an alarming rate (and somebody should do something about that)—but the New Orleans experience is incomplete without a night well spent in the presence of jazz, oddly-named drinks, and a conversation with the locals. They, at first glance, may simply blend in with the New Orleans backdrop, but give them a chance to peel the night off their backs and they may prove themselves a different person.
The last part is a hidden treasure that the flashy brochures keep hidden beneath the centerfold. The French Market, Café du Monde—all of these sights screamed tourist. Walk into the streets and take a picture of impromptu street performers, try the King Cake, hope to find a baby Jesus. Leave the city with photos and a full stomach but you’re still the same; tasted the city but haven’t found the baby Jesus just yet.
The baby Jesus, oddly enough, came while I was spreading Thinset and laying tile a little ways outside of the city. Over J-term, I volunteered with a group of other students through Harvard’s Habitat for Humanity chapter and worked on two houses. From tiling and grouting to painting and caulking, some of us were painfully out of our element. But what we lacked in construction expertise we compensated for in dedication to learning the task and laughter (one more than the other). Before we knew it, the five days on the worksite had passed, and our goodbyes loomed large on the cement-trimmed horizon.
Yet as one of the last days came to a close, the construction supervisor wandered over to chat with a group of us. He sat on the bathtub as we fitted a tile around the base of the toilet. “You know, I didn’t know what to make of y’all when you first came here, being from Harvard and all. I thought you would be pretentious—but then I just realized that y’all were just people.”
I laughed, and was going to agree with him, but stopped myself because the stereotype that Harvard students are pretentious isn’t completely outlandish. This much is true; we are people. We watch Netflix and go out on Friday nights and freak out before tests and make mistakes and regret bad choices and almost cut off our fingers with circle saws (which totally isn’t a personal anecdote). We are fallible—this is undeniably true. Yet, to say just this, to dismiss his initial premise regarding how we present ourselves to the world would be unfair to not only him but to ourselves as well.
Coming to school here, I had the exact same reservations as he did. Suddenly I was catapulted from diverse, run-of-the-mill New Jersey public schools to the most prestigious school I could imagine. People back home associate me with this name brand, but I hadn’t reconciled myself with this image. This prestige was a flashy brochure; I saw the sights through someone else’s camera lens and was scared to call them mine. The castle-like ambiance of Annenberg, the infamous John Harvard statue—all of these sights screamed tourist. Walk through the Yard and see people from all over the world in awe at the school you take for granted; try the Veritaffle. Leave the Yard with photos and a full stomach, but this time I was worried that I would change, that I would become this stereotypical nose-upturned snob that we Harvard students appear to be from the outside.
During my time here, I have found these people. Those who look down on others due to socioeconomic status, high school aristocracy, perceived academic adeptness, breadth of extracurriculars or more—they do exist. They are just as valid a representation of Harvard is as the 12 self-selected students and I that volunteered to build houses over winter break. We are two sides of the same brochure; it is the reader’s choice, however, to look beneath the centerfold.
So instead of simply laughing away his initial expectations, I agreed with them. I told him his impressions were unfortunately true in some respects. Yet, I also thanked him for seeing our dimensionality, and for giving us a chance to break ourselves out of the elitist box the Harvard name places you in, the box that family, friends, and strangers have expected you to find a home in.
We said our goodbyes, left the town that night, and went back to New Orleans. The city was alive with lights, fluorescent neon trimming Bourbon St. for blocks as people weaved in and out of a thousand bars, heading in a million different directions. I wondered how much of my first impression of these strangers represented truly who they were, sans hand grenades and fishbowls and the unflattering light of a Saturday night out on the town. But I didn’t dwell on this thought too long. I simply took a few photos and walked away, stomach a bit emptier than I expected.
Jessenia Class ’20, is a Crimson Editorial writer living in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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